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Florida official says migrants flown to CA went willingly, disputes claims of coercion

Plane
Posted at 1:12 PM, Jun 07, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration said Tuesday that three dozen migrants whom the state flew from the U.S. southern border to California on private planes all went willingly, disputing allegations by California officials that the individuals were coerced to travel under false pretenses.

The admission of responsibility — five days after the first flight touched down in California’s capital — only served to heighten tensions between DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, his frequent political sparring partner.

Two planes arrived in Sacramento, on Friday and Monday, each carrying asylum-seekers mostly from Colombia and Venezuela. The individuals had been picked up in El Paso, Texas, taken to New Mexico, and then put on charter flights to California’s capital of Sacramento, said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. He is investigating whether any violations of criminal or civil law occurred.

Alecia Collins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a statement that “through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California.” She also shared a video compilation that appeared to show people signing consent forms and thanking officials for treating them well.

The clips had no time stamps, and Collins declined to share additional details about when and where they were recorded. Representatives from Sacramento ACT and PICO California, two religious groups helping the migrants in Sacramento, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comments about whether the migrants in the videos were the same as those they were helping.

Bonta told CNN late Tuesday he would be requesting that Florida turn over any video footage, unedited, that it has of the group. A spokeswoman for his office could not confirm if any of the people seen in the video were among the migrants Bonta met.

This isn’t the first time DeSantis’ administration has transported migrants from Texas to other states. Last fall, Florida flew 49 Venezuelans to the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. The move was intended to protest federal immigration policy. DeSantis has said he intends to send migrants who may end up in Florida to states that have immigrant-friendly policies, like California.

It’s not clear whether Florida was the intended destination for any of the people who arrived in California. If so, they would represent just a sliver of the immigrants who arrive in Florida each year.

DeSantis signed a law providing $12 million for his migrant relocation initiative in early May, just weeks before announcing his Republican presidential bid. He has touted the earlier migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard on the campaign trail.

Newsom, a Democrat, indicated in a tweet Monday that California may consider kidnapping charges against DeSantis. Such charges would likely be extremely difficult to prove, particularly given the migrants signed waivers.

Bonta has not directly said he is considering kidnapping charges. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in Texas on Monday said it had recommended misdemeanor and felony charges for “unlawful restraints” in the transport of migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. The county district attorney must decide whether to pursue those charges and against whom.

Possible charges aside, Newsom’s office doubled down on its criticism of DeSantis after Florida claimed credit.

“This is exploitative propaganda being peddled by a politician who has shown there are no depths he won’t sink to in his desperate effort to score a political point,” said Anthony York, a spokesman for Newsom.

Though Newsom has no plans to run for president in 2024, he and DeSantis have frequently used each other as political foils as they cast their own governing approach as a model for the nation. Beyond immigration policy, the two have sparred on abortion access, LGBTQ+ and civil rights, and a host of other cultural issues.

On the campaign trail, DeSantis has been eager to slap at progressive policies in Democratic strongholds such as New York and California, claiming that Florida’s population boom in recent years has been driven by people fleeing blue-state policies.

DeSantis is currently positioned as the strongest alternative to former President Donald Trump in the GOP’s crowded primary, although Trump maintains a big lead in early polls.

Bonta, who met with some of the migrants who arrived Friday, said they told him they were approached in El Paso by two women who spoke broken Spanish and promised them jobs. The women traveled with them by land from El Paso to Deming, New Mexico, where two men then accompanied them on the flight to Sacramento. The same men were on the flight Monday, Bonta said.

He said the asylum seekers have court dates in New York, Utah and Colorado and carried a document that “purports to be a consent and release form” that is designed to shield Florida from liability.

“Of course, what’s important is what is actually said and represented and told to the individual, and we’ve got good indications of what that was and the fact that it was false, misleading, and deceptive,” Bonta said.

His office didn’t comment Tuesday following Florida’s assertion that the migrants were not coerced.

Gabby Trejo, executive director of Sacramento ACT, a collaboration of religious congregations in the Sacramento area, said all of the migrants had already been given pending court dates by U.S. immigration officials before they were approached in Texas by people promising jobs. Trejo said that they had been “lied to and deceived.”

It’s not yet clear if the new arrivals in Sacramento plan to stay in California or will eventually seek to go elsewhere, advocates said. Four who arrived on the first flight on Friday have already been picked up by friends or family members, but the rest remain in the care of local advocacy groups.

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Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.